The Symbolism of Huckleberry Finn
Translating it to Modern Cinema
I’m now re-reading by my own volition a book that I was forced to read in grade school and again in college. The book is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and I saw it at Barnes & Noble over the weekend for just $5.95 as part of B&N Classics collection of books. I bought it and read the Introduction by Robert G. O’Meally, professor of literature at Columbia and one of the foremost Twain scholars.
Tonight I started reading it. Really for the first time. At just page 50 I can feel the power of the story and the ability of Twain to move inside the mind of a young man of the time. More than a young man, though. A symbol of something in America that was stirring at the time in many. An archetype so to speak. Huck may have rebelled against society of the time but he represented many emerging elements within his society. It is in the first 50 pages that Huck and Jim come together.
First published in 1884, it followed the American transcendental movement when the nation was bursting forth into a new freedom.
At just a quarter of the way through the novel, I’ve already come up with an idea based on our American masterpiece.
It’s a modern story based on the novel Huckleberry Finn and retaining the style and power of the great early adventure writers like H. Ryder Haggard and Jules Verne. And modern adventure writers like Chandler, Hammett, Jim Thompson. Hemingway at times. And Conrad most times.
A young boy like Huck escapes a number of things in the contemporary world and sets out on a voyage of discovery to a new “land” or place for him in the world with a “sidekick” similar to Jim.
There are a number of challenges in attempting a modern update of the Huckleberry Finn story. Certainly creating the best modern characters for Huck and Jim are key challenges here.
Who would the modern Huckleberry Finn be? And, who would the modern Jim be? Not the original ones of Twain’s masterpiece. But instead, the great symbols (or archetypes) doing battle in America today. And what might these be?
To provide the greatest drama, the character of Huck must represent one of the great symbols in opposition today and the character of Jim the other. It is more than a little interesting that both symbols represent male characters. Usually, masculine symbols are always against feminine symbols. So, one might ask if pursuing the usual battle of symbols, why two male symbols doing battle in this story? It goes to the psychology of the story.
The modern Huck represents one of these archetypes and the modern Jim represents the other of the two archetypes. Opposing symbols really. Out of all of the distractions and buzz of popular culture, the challenge is to be able to see that there are really just two sides in battle against each other. Two opposing symbols. No more. The two symbols become characters in our story and are molded as amalgamations from sub-groups of current culture and society.
What would these two symbols be today? At the risk of giving anyone ideas, the challenge is to consider who your greatest enemy is today in your battle against this enemy. Your enemy, seen as a whole, might be considered that grand opposition symbol doing battle with you today. More than anything else, it is an aspect of your own personality you do battle with. As Jung would say, your shadow (or opposite self within your own self) that opposes you.
In addition to creating the two characters for the modern story, another key challenge is putting the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn into a type of story sequence using structure and techniques from immediate areas like screenwriting, theater and novel sequence. A basic act structure. A number of sequential steps from beginning to end.
A third challenge, besides character and structure, is landscape or the place, context, medium of the story. What might represent the old Mississippi River of Twain’s time in America today? Probably not the dry concrete channels of the LA River. Another road trip down an imagined Route 66? So many things seemed to have been shepherded off as clichés it is difficult to come up with something that isn’t cliché.
It is a difficult time to find a new symbolism of place for the Mississippi River in modern America. It is very much with modern America only it was taken on a little different form to be understood in the modern world. What is the great symbol of a “river” today that two opposition archetypes can travel down together today? And how can they arrive at a type of new amalgamation of all the things boiling in the nation? And express their feelings towards each other so well that they both learned what it meant to be human and a friend from their time together. Both were such new words to them.
What is this symbolic context to place the story within? It is a deceptive question because one goes looking for “rivers” today when none of them might create the right symbolism for a modern version of the Huck Finn story. For example, in many ways, popular culture today is symbolic of a modern Mississippi River, pulling all types of society and culture along with its current. Nothing is powerful enough to fight against this current. It is really the current of the American nation. The current of America that runs through the heart of America. The heart line of America at the time.
What is the modern symbol for Mississippi River, that powerful current that pulls the nation with it?
And who are the ones who oppose this current?
Not bad questions.